Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Why is the Twilight series exponentially more popular than the more intriguing Interview with the Vampire?  Anne Rice’s Louis and Lestat witness history, carry around significant emotional baggage, and speak dialogue worthy of a screenwriter.  The Twilight Saga vampires are wooden caricatures, repeat the 12th grade over and over again, and carry on some of the most stunted and underwhelming conversations ever filmed.  Teenage vampires must be more accessible to today’s occult audience than older vampires stuck in their 20s for the rest of their lives.
Breaking Dawn - Part 2 begins immediately where Part 1 ended.  Bella (Kristen Stewart) wakes up from one of the most intense birthing scenes ever recorded a ruby red-lipped, red-eyed, pale vampire.  She sees minute details football fields in front of her, sprints faster than a car, jumps to the tree tops, and lusts after warm blooded creatures, both human and animal.  For her first kill, instead of taking out a poor, innocent doe she was tracking, Bella sinks her fangs into what is most likely an endangered mountain lion who was about to feast on the deer.    
The spawn of the previously mentioned birth is the unfortunately named Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy).  CGI effects make her look more like Gollum than the half-human, half-vampire she is.  She’s got nothing on Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia in the vampire department.  She is also saddled with Jacob the werewolf protector (Taylor Lautner) who puts off an extremely disturbing vibe that in the future he is going to become much more than Renesmee’s bodyguard.  In an awkward and forced anger scene, Bella kicks the crap out of Jacob for his ‘imprinting’ on her infant daughter as an amused Edward (Robert Pattinson) looks on.  At least Jacob as a werewolf looks somewhat believable. 
The special effects showing vampires running through the woods are noticeably off.  When Bella and Edward are shown in close-up admiring one another while sprinting, they blatantly do not fit in with the passing background.  It takes the audience right out of the movie experience.  Another incongruent element is the advanced rate of Renesmee’s development.  She grows six inches every month or so which confuses Bella’s poor father Charlie (Billy Burke).  Charlie is written as the dumbest human being alive.  Jacob needlessly disrobes in front of him to show him he is a werewolf and Bella tells him she is fine but cannot tell him anything else about herself, even why she looks different.  They tell Charlie Resmenee is his adopted niece even though she looks exactly like her mother.  Poor Charlie.  These Twilight films never give him a chance to be more than a bumbling fool.
So will there finally be a pay-off?  Twilight audiences have gone through five films now just waiting for something to happen.  Through a misunderstanding involving Irina (Maggie Grace), a vampire cousin, the ancient vampire leaders known as the Volturi learn Edward and Bella had a child which runs afoul of one of the top three vampire rules.  Aro (Michael Sheen) and Jane (Dakota Fanning) lead a robed and hooded clan to go and meet the Pacific Northwest clan on the snowy field of battle.  Michael Sheen purposefully overacts; however, this works since anyone who is as old as he seems to be probably has a few cobwebs in the attic.  At least he makes up for monosyllabic Jane who only gets to mumble the word ‘pain’ every now and again.
The Maggie Grace curse strikes again!  No matter the material, if the casting director chooses Maggie Grace, your film is going to be the worse for it.  She was the worst character on Lost, the weak link in the Taken series, and helped torpedo an already horrible film from earlier this year, Lockout.  Of course she is involved in a Three’s Company misunderstanding leading to a cascade of unnecessary stand-offs, world travel, and overall nuisance.  At least she was the catalyst for the most interesting part of the film, the gathering and introduction of other vampires of the world.  It seems globalization has affected blood-suckers as well.  There is the British guy, the Irish family, the Transylvanians with corresponding atrocious accents, the Arab, and even a pair of Amazon warriors. 
The pay-off is two armies on opposing sides of a large and open field in the dead of winter.  Vampires are lucky they do not get cold because those scantily clad Amazon warriors would be in trouble.  There is a mountain of internet chatter about a twist ending and I will not reveal what happens on this field, but it works.  There are those who are angry and call it a cheap trick, but instead, it is a cleverly written piece which tries, but not does make up for the lazy misunderstanding which brought them all together in the first place. 
The Twilight series is now over and while Breaking Dawn - Part 2 was not a good movie, it was far better than its three predecessors and matches the first installment which was not that bad either.  If you are a teenager, you already saw this movie.  If you are 20 or above, save yourself the two hours and go back and watch Interview with the Vampire again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)


Pat (Bradley Cooper) does not handle stress in a manner acceptable to society.  When he unexpectedly comes home from work and discovers his wife in the shower with a co-worker, he beats the guy almost to death.  His plea agreement with the courts sends him to a mental institution where they determine him to have an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.  Pat accepts the diagnosis; it explains aspects of his personality and better yet, he can use it as an excuse to convince his wife to come back to him, or at the very least drop the restraining order.  Pat experienced a few delusions in the past but now that his mom has signed him out of the institution, his most persistent delusion may be the idea that his version of self-betterment will make his wife want come home.

His parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) are lower class native Philadelphians whose lives revolve around the weekly Sunday football game and the idea of opening a philly cheesesteak restaurant.  They are getting on in years and the last thing their small and stifling household needs is their adult son holed up in the attic, refusing to take his meds, and throwing A Farewell to Arms out of the window because he disagrees with the ending.  Pat and Pat Sr. are not very close and there is a sense that Pat Sr. was not the most supportive and nurturing father in Pat's younger years.  He is banned from the football stadium because he is considered too violent to be in the stands and that is a really telling sign considering the average Eagle fan.  The only way he knows how to talk to his son now are through Philadelphia Eagle football metaphors, which as a fledgling bookie, means more to him than just supporting the home team, it is his financial means to the cheesesteak restaurant ends.    

Watch the preview and you will think Silver Linings Playbook is a witty comedy morphing into romance.  Hidden just below the surface though is a film circling around a mostly normal guy whose stressors trigger real mental trauma.  It doesn't help that his friends are also eyeing him in a new light.  His best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), is glad to have Pat back but his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles), is far more skeptical.  Plus, Veronica's sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), is also sliding back on forth on the mental wellness scale.  She is a very young widow now that her cop husband recently died.  Tiffany discovers a sort of kindred spirit in Pat.  They are both considered broken by those around them.  Also, people who are treated as or indeed feel crazy find more comfort amongst others like them instead of with those folks labelled normal and functioning.

Pat is oblivious to these easily gleaned insights though.  He is solely focused on his wife and their marriage which he has placed on an extremely lofty and unrealistic pedestal.  In his eyes, he is the normal one and Tiffany is the one who is clearly nuts and who makes him uncomfortable with her accurate questions about what is going on in his head.  Tiffany made some poor choices following her husband's death; however, she is much more self aware than wayward Pat.   

David O. Russell wrote and directed Silver Linings Playbook and is his first film since his success with The Fighter (2010).  The obvious similarities between the two films are their northeast location, lower class atmosphere, and some family drama although The Fighter wins hands down on who is the most dysfunctional.  Pat is less like Micky Ward and falls more on the Dicky Eklund side of the aisle.  His anger is real and finding ways to control it during tense situations is not coming easy to him.  Pat noticeably feels better around Tiffany though.  He considers her annoying and intrusive but also understanding and as someone he can actually count on which seems like a rare commodity now that he is marked as a guy just out of the 'hospital'.  The most likable parts of the film are when Pat and Tiffany are together talking through their respective problems.  

There are also some surprise supporting actors not seen very often on the big screen anymore who pop up.  Chris Tucker plays Danny, Pat's friend from the hospital, and Julia Stiles is a welcome presence even though her character is not supposed to be too pleasant.  Why are Chris Tucker sightings so few and far between?  His work in The Fifth Element and Friday still brings smiles to those of us who have fond memories of those movies.  Also, Jackie Weaver as Pat's mom completely overshadows poor Robert De Niro who seems to be in the same role he played in Everybody's Fine (2009).  Jackie Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Animal Kingdom (2010) and she has lost none of the intensity required to be the matriarch of a complicated family.   

Silver Linings Playbook won multiple festival awards, mostly from the People's Choice category and even at the prestigious Toronto festival.  These nominations will probably not hold up though to the more serious year end awards.  The screenplay is creative and the performances are memorable; however, it lacks a certain depth and realism which Pat's disorder will sooner or later require.  It swims for too long in the shallower end of the comedy pool when it should take a turn for deeper and more dramatic waters.  In the end, Silver Linings Playbook is mostly enjoyable and it gives us a chance to see Chris Tucker again.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lincoln (2012)


In 2012, Abraham Lincoln is on currency, in hundreds of dusty books, and sitting in a chair in his own memorial at one end of the National Mall.  His image is stale; he is not a man, but an unknowable symbol.  Steven Spielberg, however, fashions the legend into a flesh and blood human being.  This Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells jokes, argues with his wife, and walks with a hunch in his shoulders as if an imaginary weight bears down on them.  Lincoln is no longer just 25% of Mt. Rushmore, he is the most fascinating, sympathetic, and memorable character you will see on a movie screen this year.

Hard choices must be made to tell Abraham Lincoln's story.  Do you start with his birth and childhood?  Do you cover his early legal and congressional career?  Which part of his presidency do you focus on and if you include the assassination, will that be most of the story or just the end?  Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, who bases his screenplay on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, decide to focus not just on Lincoln's presidency, but on a very specific time just after his re-election in January 1865.  The Civil War is entering its fourth year and hundreds of thousands are dead on bloody battlefields, yet there is a sense in the air that the war's conclusion is near.  It is anyone's guess how it will end, but that does not stop them from discussing what will come after during Reconstruction.  Some argue for the Union to take revenge against the south instead of leniency, some argue for a negotiated peace instead of an official surrender, and some argue for slavery's return instead of full abolition.

Lincoln knows full well that at the war's end,  the courts may declare his Emancipation Proclamation illegal.  The only way to ensure slavery's demise is to pass an amendment to the Constitution, specifically the 13th Amendment.  To do that, the House of Representatives must vote in favor of it with a two-thirds majority.  In 1865, there is no shortage of Congressmen who remain pro-slavery and dead set against the equalling of the races which they see as naturally separated by God.  Convincing men to change their votes to abolish slavery and argue that which they believe emanates from a higher power is wrong seems an impossible task, and it is this task Lincoln, his Cabinet, and his cronies must accomplish if they hope to succeed.  

Anyone paying attention in high school knows about the 13th Amendment and knows what will happen in the end.  Therefore, it is a true credit to Spielberg, Kushner, and the cast that the process of its life in Congress is fraught with tension, suspense, and real emotions tied to it.  Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) marshals the men who will do the arm twisting.  The arm twisters, including Mr. Bilbo (James Spader) and Mr. Latham (John Hawkes) are greasy insiders promising patronage jobs and many other enticements to the fence-sitters.  The fence-sitters are being pulled and pushed by their Congressional leaders including Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook).  Observing their debates from the balcony is Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) who feels some shame from her earlier bouts of grief and depression over her deceased son Willie, yet remains determined to keep her oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), from enlisting.  

Behind all of this vast political machinery, corruption, debating, and harsh words stands a weary man quick to tell a witty story to make his point and lead a torn country towards his vision of a united future.  Lincoln is a masterpiece of filmmaking and is an unforgettable film to watch in a theater.  It will be nominated for an array of Oscars with wins most likely for Day-Lewis and Spielberg.  Daniel Day-Lewis may be the most gifted actor currently working when his chooses to take on a role, which only happens every other year or so.  Everybody still remembers Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood and Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting from Gangs of New York.  He raises his voice by what sounds like an entire octave to speak in what the historians say was Lincoln's higher-pitched tone.  He looks down at the table or the ground when in conversation but when required, he will command the room's attention when he knows he must bind people together to do the right thing.     

Crafting a biopic around a man as iconic as Abraham Lincoln requires a firm hand and concrete decision-making.  If you include too much material from too many episodes in his life, the movie will feel stretched, light, and make much less of an impact on the audience because of its lack of depth in any particular area.  By focusing Lincoln on a very specific and limited timeframe, shaping the central conflict over one of the most transformative constitutional amendments, and employing actors who all give superior performances based on a stellar script, Spielberg has made what will most likely be the best film of the year and one which all should take the time and go see. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall (2012)


After so many chases, fights, close calls, and just plain years, James Bond is starting to feel and look his age.  He is still the best in the game when it comes to spy tradecraft and creativity to get the job done, but physically, the younger generation has an edge on him.  Skyfall is the 23rd Bond film and the screenwriters finally get around to letting Bond advance a little bit in time.  The gadgets are throwback technology, the vehicles are vintage, the past is lurking around the corner, but the threat is quite new and fits with the times we live in.

Cyberterrorism is high on every government's threat matrix and some of the most feared criminals in the world wreak their havoc over a laptop instead of building a bomb.  Bond (Daniel Craig) does not seem too keen on embracing fighting through wireless communications, he prefers chasing assassins using planes, trains, and automobiles.  Skyfall begins with the familiar trumpet/trombone blast and unlike other openings, it does not use suspense or speak spy moves to ease the audience into the movie.  Right off the bat, Bond is careening through Istanbul streets, dodging pedestrians and bullets, stealing a motorcycle, jumping off a bridge, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat on top of a moving train.  His field support Eve (Naomie Harris) has her rifle trained on Bond and the bad guy with no clear shot.  M (Judi Dench), who is well aware of the high stakes of this game, orders the shot and there is James Bond shot in the chest, falling off a train into a river, and over a waterfall.  

You may have seen a version of this before in You Only Live Twice, but here it is not all part of the plan.  Bond was not planning on getting shot.  There is no easy bounce back either.  His weary and weathered body cannot shrug off the battering he subjects himself to.  Perhaps it is time for Bond to hang it up and retire.  M also feels the pressure to hand over the MI6 reigns to the youngbloods.  Her new boss, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), looks to ease her out and sees nothing but an irrelevant dinosaur when observing Bond.  M and Bond are also at a loss in facing the world's new and most effective cyberterrorist.  A shadowy mastermind steals a hard drive with all of MI6's double agents inside terrorist organizations, blows up a huge chuck of MI6 headquarters, and always seems at least three steps ahead of Britain's elite.  

This type of villain is not in Bond's wheelhouse.  The only support the new, and extremely young, Q (Ben Whishaw) can provide is a sleek looking Walther PPK and an old school radio/location beacon.  The stage is set for Bond's old school ways versus the new generation's weapons of choice, cyberspace.  The audience gets exotic locales in Shanghai and Macau, but also the crowded streets of London and the claustrophobic London tube during rush hour.  The puppet master, Silva (Javier Bardem), is on the same wavelength as the Goldeneye villain but far more sophisticated, brilliant, and lethal.  It is even more creepy that his is blonde.  Unlike previous villains, he is not aiming towards world domination, a huge payoff, and has nothing to do with outer space.  His motivation is simply revenge which may be the most dangerous motivation of them all.

Instead of appearing intermittently throughout the film to coach Bond, M gets way more screen time here than usual.  She must defend MI6 in public Parliament hearings, worry that her best agent has passed over the invisible line separating youth from middle age, and protect her sacrosanct organization from being the play toy of wily politicians.  Skyfall provides Judi Dench with her chance to be the leading figure we knew she could be.  It is also the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film and director Sam Mendes has a bit of fun with that.  Remember the Aston Martin DB5 and the old school theme music on a solo guitar?  You may hear sections of the audience cheer when those elements pop up in homage.  Mendes is an excellent choice to helm an important and transitional Bond film such as this.  His Road to Perdition and Jarhead were both primed to be action thrillers; however, they were muted with deeper philosophical issues.  Instead of the protagonist just looking for the next stooge to shoot, they had the bigger picture in mind.  

This version of James Bond is a shade more of a deep thinker than his predecessors.  The early Sean Connery films through most of the Pierce Brosnan era, Bond's backstory and most certain arthritic future were never mentioned because that is not the type of Bond they were.  They were 100% in the present and looking for both the bad guy and the next pretty girl.  Skyfall is just as strong as Casino Royale and thankfully relegates the sub-par Quantum of Solace to the forgettable category along with some of Brosnan's recent efforts including Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another DayCasino Royale remains the best of Daniel Craig's Bond films, but Skyfall more than holds its own.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)


So soon after one Spiderman series wrapped up in 2007 does Columbia Pictures unleash another version of the cash-cow series.  New director, new actors, and even new characteristics about the hero himself are incorporated to make the audience feel The Amazing Spider-man is more than just a re-make.  Comparisons with the 2002 starter film, Spider-man, are inevitable and in the end downgrade this updated 2012 iteration.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a very unlucky kid.  First, his parents abruptly up and leave him in the middle of the night and pass him off to his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen, Sally Field).  Second, Peter goes to Midtown Science High School which you imagine is going to be a cutting edge, Silicon Valley prep school but is rather an extremely hostile environment complete with its own psychopath bully named Flash (Chris Zylka).  His classmate, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), does not even know Peter's name although he sits next to her in class and most likely has for years.  Peter's senior year of high school is the appropriate beginning for Spiderman's origin, but the requirement to create such a horrible and cliche atmosphere is not necessary.  Nowadays, if a student named Flash kicked the crap out of Peter Parker he would be arrested and brought up on charges instead of hustled off to the basketball court.  Besides, Peter Parker is noticeably tall, in excellent physical shape, and good looking.  This guy should have no problem maneuvering his high school hallways.

While piecing together his father's past, Peter winds up at Oscorp talking to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).  Dr. Connors is the world's leading expert on the idea of synthesizing animal DNA into human DNA to promote limb regeneration.  He is missing his right arm and while I have no doubt everyone who does not have a right arm wishes they had one very much, Dr. Connors has a very serious case of loss and abandonment over the missing appendage.  As in the 2002 version, a spider bites Peter which is the catalyst for a traumatic form of late teenage puberty but the transformation is a bit different this time.  Super strength, speed, and agility are part of the package again but now the webbing is not just shot out of Peter's wrist; he manufactures it from a machine created through the standard 'get to know your knew body' montage.  Oh yeah, it helps a lot that Peter is also a scientific and electronics genius.  Uncle Ben must find him quite handy to have around the townhouse.

Poor Uncle Ben.  If there is a new Spiderman, then this inevitably leads to Uncle Ben's demise.  This time though, instead of happenstance and an indirect situation which leaves Peter thinking he is responsible for Uncle Ben's death, 2012 Peter Parker straight up makes four or five horrible decisions and is absolutely to blame for Uncle Ben's murder.  Andrew Garfield's Spiderman is far less mature and carries around more childish emotions than Tobey Maguire's Spiderman.  He can be cruel to his guardians when he wants to be, something Tobey never would have done.  He can also get hurt.  After battling criminals and the like all night, Peter Parker's body shows it.  He limps, has bruises all over his body, and gashes on his face.  This Spiderman is not impervious to pain, he feels the punch.

Most of the punches later in the film come from The Lizard.  The foreshadowing early in the film is so blatant that anyone who is familiar with Spiderman villains from the comics knows which bad guy will show up.  This Godzilla creature has long, sharp claws, can regenerate its tail and arms if they are chopped off, and has a goal to turn the entire city of Manhattan into lizards as well.  He may kill people, but he is equal opportunity about it.  Spiderman, learning about the concept of responsibility from the loss of Uncle Ben, must confront The Lizard but also must dodge the Chief of Police, Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), who also happens to be Gwen's father.  This is a lot for poor Peter to juggle.  

The Amazing Spider-man was made too soon after the previous series.  Spider-man 3 was released in 2007.  I suppose this is an eon in Hollywood time but I have no doubt the rest of us clearly still remember Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco.  Marc Webb is an odd pick to helm this project because his previous work are some music videos and one of the best films from the past few years, (500) Days of Summer.  This catalogue of work would not normally put him in line to create the next big action hero series.  He made some good choices concerning Peter's emotional volatility, his relationship with Gwen, and the idea that Peter really gets the sand pounded out of him, but the parts do not make a satisfying whole.  The mechanical webs are limiting, the soaring through the air between skyscrapers is mundane, and Peter Parker's altruistic personality is gone and replaced with a sharper edge.  Skip The Amazing Spider-man.  If you really want to see some web-slinging action though, go back and watch Spider-man 2, the best one of all of four of these things.